A friend of mine suggested that I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, because it is always good to be knowledgeable about the criticism in your field. So I read the book hoping to find an intelligent challenge that would spark intellectual debate with my colleagues in the field of positive psychology. Instead, I found Ehrenreich’s book to be a poorly-researched angry rant, attacking everything positive, with little scientific evidence and a great deal of cynicism.
Ehrenreich’s impetus for writing the book came from her experience as a breast cancer patient when everyone told her to just “think positive thoughts” and “smile your way through cancer.” Many told her a positive attitude would actually improve her chances of survival, which angered her given her knowledge of cell biology (she wrote her thesis on the topic 42 years ago).
But what truly enraged Ehrenreich were those breast cancer survivors who wrote about positive benefits from having breast cancer. According to Ehrenreich, online chat rooms were filled with comments that were “upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.”
To suggest that women are actually happy to have breast cancer because they have experienced some positive benefits is taking this notion too far in my opinion. Women can’t control if they get breast cancer, but they can control how they deal with it. To quote a breast cancer survivor, “Make no mistake, cancer totally sucks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are a few things about being touched by the disease that have markedly made my life better.”
This is now commonly referred to as post-traumatic growth, when someone emerges from a difficult or traumatic experience stronger as a result. Apparently, when some women feel post-traumatic growth and tell others, Ehrenreich gets angry and writes a book.
BOOK REVIEW: Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America New York: Metropolitan Books.
Positive Thoughts and Health? No for Survival, Yes for Longevity and Morbidity
Ehrenreich, for the most part, disagrees with the notion that happiness is associated with good health, and she offers one or two research studies to defend her position. She makes a weak attempt at poking holes in research studies that support the association between happiness and good health, not by tapping into expert opinion, but rather with an obvious misunderstanding that she herself admits of how to interpret psychological and statistical research findings.
Does thinking positively in fact improve your health?
Edward Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener offer an excellent summary of the links between happiness and good health in their book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. They explore three types of health:
- Morbidity (whether or not an individual develops or contracts a specific illness)
- Survival (what happens to someone once they have already developed a serious illness)
- Longevity (measured by your age at death)
On morbidity, Diener and Biswas-Diener highlight several research studies that show that happiness can help “fend off infectious diseases, guard against lifestyle related illnesses, and protect against heart disease… (p.33)” For example, cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the United States and “depressed people are several times more likely than nondepressed folks to have heart attacks and hypertension (p.39).”
On survivability, the exact opposite is true. “Reviews of studies linking health and emotions show that survival rates for those people who have serious diseases might be an exception to the health benefits of happiness…survival is the one area where happiness is sometimes actually detrimental (p.34).” In this case, Ehrenreich does a respectable job at explaining how our immune systems work, but her arguments lack credibility because she does not support her explanations with extensive research. She does, however, make an important point to all those battling things like cancer: Do not expect your positive thoughts to save your life.
On longevity I can relate to Ehrenreich’s skepticism about the famous “nun study” that is quoted by so many positive psychologists, but there are other studies that show a link between happiness and longevity even controlling for pre-existing medical conditions. Yet George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development in his seminal book Aging Well, states: “I only wish to instill reasonable doubt that it is depression, per se, that is the cause of poor health in old age. Rather it is the heavy smoking and the poor self-care that accompanies depression that are major culprits.”
Thus living longer may have more to do with healthy habits that are associated with happiness than just happiness itself. The nun study would tend to contradict this finding since nuns typically have similar lifestyles. Ehrenreich, however, argues a moot point. If it is happiness or the fact that happiness leads to healthier habits, which ultimately leads to improved longevity, then isn’t this good news to share? While the scientific evidence is not extensive at this point in time, the research findings that happiness does in fact contribute to improved morbidity and longevity is compelling enough to reliably act on.
Positive Thinking and the Economic Collapse of America?As for Ehrenreich’s claim that positive thinking caused the economic collapse of America, I turned to former VP of a large Canadian bank, Raynor Burke, who alerted his higher-ups about the impending crash, only to be let go for his pessimistic outlook. Even though he was silenced, he states other reasons for the economic crash:
“…outlook, thought process and groupthink really had much less to do with the recent crash than a deliberate shakedown by central bankers. Lowering interest rates and allowing anyone with a pulse to acquire unreasonable debt loads is what caused this crisis. The deliberate dismantling of the western world’s manufacturing sector (and exporting thereof to Asia) in the 90’s was another key element. Any other explanation is, in my mind, little more than window dressing, covering the deliberate actions of the banking establishment to seize control of assets which would otherwise belong to the people.” (For Raynor’s full response, see the first comment below.)
Book Takes on Positive Psychology and Misses Key Research Areas
The extent of Ehrenreich’s research in positive psychology appears to be Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, which, along with Seligman himself, is the focus of her attacks on positive psychology. In the chapter titled Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness, her attacks turn to blatant misrepresentation of Seligman’s work. Most notably, Seligman refers to more than 250 psychological scientific studies in his book, more than one study per page of text, and yet she states: “Like most lay books on positive thinking, it’s a jumble of anecdotes…references to philosophers and religious texts, and tests you can take to assess your progress toward a happier and healthier mind-set.” (p.153)
When she interviewed Seligman for the book she took cheap shots at his research. For example, she remarked that several questions in Seligman’s Authentic Happiness Inventory were a bit arbitrary. When Seligman suggests that it was a failure on her part to understand test development and that questions were chosen for their predictive value, her response was “Well, no. First you come up with a test that seems to measure happiness as generally defined, and then you can look for things that happiness seems to correlate with….”
Ehrenreich continues to offer a defense that is not scientifically based but rather based on opinion with no proposal on how a good test should be developed. She loses complete credibility when she tries to understand “beta weights” by “googling it,” implying she knows more about it than Seligman who has been studying psychology for decades. Finally, to imply Seligman is a layperson on the topic of positive psychology is like calling Bill Gates a layperson on the topic of computing. Seligman’s 40-plus years of research in psychology and his ability to mobilize thousands of researchers from very prominent universities around the world make him deservedly the leading international authority on the topic of positive psychology.
What I found most noteworthy was the fact that she stayed away from Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions. This is mainly due to the fact that Ehrenreich makes no distinction between positive thinking, positive emotion, and positive psychology, erroneously using the terms interchangeably. In fact, she spends so much time attacking everything from capitalism and optimism to the American way that she pays little attention to the importance of positive emotions in her entire book.
As for implications for positive psychology practitioners, Ehrenreich’s book is not an attack on positive psychology per se but rather an attack on American optimism and the teachings of The Secret that espouse to “if you envision a million dollars, it will appear” kind of thinking. She just mistakenly throws positive psychology into this mix without exploring (or possibly not understanding) how the approaches differ.
Ehrenreich attacks the use of optimism in general because she thinks there is only one kind: blind optimism and fake cheeriness. On the point of “blind optimism,” I think positive psychologists would agree. Seligman advises that if you are analyzing risky situations, like whether to de-ice the wings of a plane before take-off, that in fact pessimism may be the way to go. It is about understanding when to use optimism and when not to use it.
It is clear she does not understand Seligman’s definition of optimism, which is based on healthy ways of explaining bad events in our lives, primarily known as explanatory style. It is a well-known fact that depression is linked to unhealthy ways of thinking which is why cognitive behavioral therapy is such an effective tool in fighting depression. Instead, with her lack of appreciation for the middle ground on optimism, she throws the baby out with the bathwater.
What is sad to see is this book is written at a time when depression rates are fast reaching epidemic levels in America. There is no mention in the book of how interventions in positive psychology have been shown in several longitudinal studies to prevent depressive symptoms.
I do not read every day about people who are blissfully happy and optimistic and how this happiness is ruining their lives. Instead, I do read about teenage suicide, adolescent depression, rising levels of anxiety and psychological illness as the number one reason for absence in the workplace.
For this reason her book is irresponsible. It is easy to write a book criticizing everything and to have readers roll around in the mud with you, but I prefer to be collaborating with the brilliant scholars I have met in the positive psychology community who strive to offer solutions and can at least back up their arguments with credible scientific evidence. Even to the end, the book leaves you feeling completely hopeless with no clear direction of what we should be moving toward. As a reader, one is left wondering, what is the purpose of such a book?
Chaplin, T.M., Gillham, J.E., Reivich, K., Elkon, A.G.L., Samuels, B., Freres, D.R., Winder, B., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Depression prevention for early adolescent girls: A pilot study of all-girls verses co-ed groups. Journal of Early Adolescence, 26, 110-126.
Danner D, Snowdon D, Friesen W. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the Nun Study Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 804-813.
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Ipsos Reid, Public Release Date: Monday, November 19, 2007. Mental Health in the Workplace: Largest Study Ever Conducted of Canadian Workplace Mental Health and Depression.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Zonderman, A. B., Costa, P. T. & McCrae, R. R. (1989). Depression as a risk for cancer morbidity and mortality in a nationally representative sample. JAMA. 262, 1191-1195.